Credit: King's Theatre

A Tale of Two Cities

Image courtesy of Festival Theatre

A Tale of Two Cities
King’s Theatre
Run Ended

James Darce’s production of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities captures the thrill of revolution and its aftermath, projecting a deconstruction of our own political and moral values onto the stage.

Playwright Mike Poulton’s task, to abridge a novel three books long, is no mean feat – not least because of the contrasting political landscapes, the intricate plot structure, and the exceedingly descriptive language. Quite remarkably his stage translation is highly faithful to the original, with the novel’s essential dualisms still intact, convincingly adapted for an audience. “The best of times . . . the worst of times” are unravelled in the labyrinth of parallels throughout.

Perhaps what makes this so effective are the variety of ways in which this as achieved. We find contrast, for example, in the costumes that mark class difference: excessively elaborate for the aristocracy versus starkness for the oppressed masses. The same holds true for the ambience used to mark change in setting, such as the muted lighting and soft sounds of the safety of London, or the vibrancy and fervour of revolutionary Paris. Most effective is the doubling of characters to mark moral progression, perhaps best illustrated by the virtuous Charles (Jacob Ifan) versus the abject Sydney (Joseph Timms). Whereas in a novel these tensions may be lost to subtlety, they are represented emphatically on stage to their fullest and most vivid extent. 

The advantage of an authentic interpretation is also in its accessibility to the unfamiliar viewer, which is apparent from the varied audience, comprising young children and devoted Dickens fans alike.

Certain moments are particularly immersive, specifically the judicial scenes, where the clamour of court and staging of the cast in layers cause the audience to participate as a second jury. Likewise, the comedic performances of Miss Pross (Sue Wallace) and Jerry (Jonathan Dryden Taylor) particularly engage the viewers, who relish the odd moments of humour amongst so much heartbreak. Most striking however, is Madame Defarge’s (Noa Bodner) disturbing address to the audience as the curtain closes on Act One; the image of her calmly knitting through the chaos is etched into the viewers’ minds throughout the interval.

Perhaps time constraints do impinge slightly on character development, for example, Sydney’s moral transformation appears abrupt. However, this does not mean we are immune to the harrowing effects of his demise – as the play draws to a close and he ascends to the guillotine, ideas of resurrection reverberate.

Even though Darce’s production may skim over the Christian undertones that are traditionally attributed to Dickens’ work, it instead leaves room for contemporary interpretation.

In our fraught political climate, Dickens’ message resonates louder than ever; just as revolution can be used as a means of catharsis and rebirth, we should be cautious as to losing our compassion for humanity.

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